In New York, the United Nations is still lumbering through its Sept. 28th – Oct. 3 general debate. But even with today’s declaration by aging potentate Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian Authority will no longer respect the Oslo Accords (did they ever?) the headlines are elsewhere. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin not only stole the UN show, but in Syria — and beyond — is stealing a march on President Obama that makes the current world scene look ever more like the disastrous penultimate year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. That 1979 run of debacles opened with Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and rolled on to the Soviet Union’s December invasion of Afghanistan — lighting the fuel under the cauldron whence sprang, in due course, a great many horrors, including the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
Obama’s presidency still has more than a year to run (477 days, to be precise), and after more than six years of U.S. global retreat, as we toil through this fourth quarter of “interesting stuff,” trouble is spreading even faster than it did in the Carter era. The threats now rising like a tsunami on the horizon are, arguably, worse.
But let’s focus here on Russia. This week, President Putin has delivered not only a blitz in Syria, but a grand slam on the world stage. Call it a play in three acts.
Act I: Monday, Sept. 28th, at the UN General Assembly in New York. Obama delivers his annual speech, repeating the message of his first presidential address to the UN in 2009 — in which he effectively served notice that under his command, America was abdicating, to the international collective, its longtime leadership of the Free World. This year, arriving with the feckless UN-approved Iran nuclear deal in his pocket, and lamenting both the ills of dictatorship and the frustrations of democracy, Obama tells the assembled eminences at the UN that he believes in his core “that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.” He adds, “We cannot look backwards.” (“Oh, yes we can,” editorializes The Wall Street Journal, noting that “even as he concedes the growing world disorder, Mr. Obama still won’t admit that his policy of American retreat has created a vacuum for rogues to fill.”)
On Syria (“nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested,” Obama tells the UN), he says the U.S. “is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.” He stipulates there must be a “managed transition” to an “inclusive government.” ISIL must be “ultimately” stamped out, and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad must go.
Note: Obama has been saying since 2011 that Assad must go, and if he has a strategy behind this, it is one that for more than four years now has failed to prevent Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the presence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, the rise and spread of ISIS, the deaths of more than 200,000 people in Syria’s civil war, the flight of millions of Syrian refugees, and growing tumult in the region. (Though the U.S. at massive cost, in the quest to have Syrians find their own resolution to this conflict, has managed to stand up four, or five, or nine U.S.-trained Syrian fighters inside Syria).
Then Putin takes the podium, and delivers Russia’s views to the UN Assembly. Usually he leaves this annual chore to his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. But this year Putin has seized on the UN’s 70th anniversary festivities to come in person. He gives his own account of history, apparently quite willing to revisit old arguments, and tells the UN that in Syria, Assad must stay.
Act II. Tuesday, Sept. 29th, at the UN in New York. Obama continues appealing to the collective. He convenes a “Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent extremism.” In his opening remarks, he welcomes the “representatives from more than 100 nations, more than 20 multilateral institutions, some 120 civil society groups from around the world, and partners from the private sector.” He reminds them that a year ago he gave them some homework: he challenged countries to return to the General Assembly this year “with concrete steps that we can take together.” This year he is convinced that “what we have here today is the emergence of a global movement that is united by the mission of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.” Together, he tells them, “we’re pursuing a comprehensive strategy… .” He repeats his desire for a new leader in Syria, “an inclusive government… . This is going to be a complex process.” Part way through the meeting Obama turns over the chair to Vice President Joe Biden.
Putin does not attend this summit at which scores of leaders are talking about the complex process. He has left the UN to return to Moscow.
Act III. Wednesday, Sept. 30. In the Middle East, Russia makes its move. In Baghdad a Russian general delivers a demarche to the U.S. embassy, informing the U.S. that Russian planes are about to begin air strikes in Syria. Russia’s message is not one of cooperation with the U.S., nor is it seeking the permission of Tuesday’s UN-conferencing multitude of envoys, civil society groups and so forth. Russia, which has been moving troops and military equipment into Syria, is asking U.S. war planes to get out of its way.
To put it more accurately, Russia is telling the U.S. — not asking. In Syria, that same day, Russian war planes carry out strikes, not against ISIS, but against areas which The Wall Street Journal reports are “primarily held by rebel forces backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services.”
And, in the U.S., officials pursue “de-confliction discussion”:
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter holds a press conference, in which he says (take a deep breath, this is a lulu of tortured language):
…it’s important to see if we can get the Russians in a position where they are coming to understand the contradiction in the position they now have and the possibility that by seeing a political transition and defeating extremism is something you have to pursue in parallel to succeed in Syria, maybe they could make a constructive contribution. But they’re not on the path to doing that in the way they do — they are acting now.
At the UN, in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry tells a Russia-chaired meeting of the Security Council that the U.S. is prepared to “welcome” Russia’s “recent actions” if the aim is to defeat ISIL, but if the aim is to protect the Assad regime by striking other rebel areas, “we would have grave concerns.” For the third time this week, Kerry meets with Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov. They then appear together — John and Sergei — at a UN media stakeout, at which Kerry says they would “both concur” that their meeting was “constructive.” Kerry tells the press that they have discussed the need for further discussions, and the imperative of, well, some samples below, and you can find Kerry’s full remarks here:
military-to-military de-confliction discussion, meeting, conference, whichever … and several options were agreed to be further discussed…we also agreed that it is imperative to find a solution to this conflict… even as we don’t yet have a resolution with respect to some critical choices in that political solution, we think we have some very specific steps that may be able to help lead in the right direction. That needs to be properly explored… And so, we finally agreed we have a lot of work to do.
Curtain. As the world audience contemplates this latest drama in the reshaping of the 21st Century World Order, Putin’s latest blitz, and America’s scramble to, imperatively, constructively, as soon as possible, de-conflict and discuss.